Courtney Pine: ’80s Jazz Messenger

courtney pine

Courtney in concert, 1987

Gifted saxophonist Courtney Pine‘s career is one of British jazz’s great success stories. Starting out in the early ‘80s as a sideman with reggae act Clint Eastwood and General Saint and various Britfunk bands, he became disillusioned with the outlawing of jazz as a respected, popular music in the climate of the early ’80s London music scene.

As he memorably put it in the superb BBC TV documentary Jazz Britannia, ‘I would add different notes in the scale the way Sonny Rollins did and people would say, “No man, we don’t want that.” They were saying to me, “If you’re black and you want to play jazz in this country, you’d better go and live somewhere else!”’

But all that changed when he caught US trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on TV one afternoon. Marsalis’s professionalism and dynamism were a revelation to Pine (not to mention his youthfulness); if Marsalis could bring jazz to a wide audience, he could too.

A period of intense woodshedding paid off, and soon he was guesting with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Charlie Watts Big Band, blowing all over the Angel Heart soundtrack and blowing people away with his solos in Gary Crosby’s groundbreaking Jazz Warriors and Jazz Jamaica groups.

Island Records came calling, and his 1986 hard-bop-based debut Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK (scraping in at 39 on 25th October ’86!), an almost-unheard-of state of affairs for a jazz album. This web editor fondly remembers the day when, on opening the NME, unexpectedly found Pine’s debut and Miles Davis‘s Tutu sharing the chart.

courtney pine

Courtney spearheaded a huge resurgence of interest in jazz in the mid-to-late ’80s. But despite his huge success and admirable teaching work, he’s still somewhat of an anomaly on the scene, a barnstorming soloist with a lot of technique and a huge sound, one of the few British saxists who can give US brain-blowers like James Carter and David Murray a run for their money.

With Courtney’s playing and talent, it’s a question of context. His musical vision has certainly diversified since the mid-’80s, taking in elements of reggae, drum and bass, UK garage and jazz/funk, though the last few years have seen him refocus on mainly acoustic formats.

His fine 2011 album ‘Europa‘ was his first all-bass clarinet record and it was an absolute blast. He investigated calpyso forms on the 2012 House Of Legends set and returned to the bass clarinet for his beautiful current album Song (The Ballad Book).

Courtney is still a prolific live performer too, check out his website for details of all upcoming gigs. More power to his elbow.

Happy Blues? Robben Ford’s Talk To Your Daughter

robben fordWarner Bros, released 1988

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street 1991?

7/10

Robben is surely guaranteed a place in the pantheon of modern blues guitar greats, and, like his contemporary and good buddy Larry Carlton, he makes guitar playing sound ridiculously easy however complicated the chord changes.

Fagen and Becker had been told about Robben’s prodigious soloing ability over changes, hiring him to play the break on Steely Dan’s altered blues ‘Peg’ in 1977, but he ended up on the cutting room floor (they famously went through six other guitarists before Jay Graydon smashed it at the eleventh hour).

But sometimes Ford’s good looks, cheerful stage persona and sweet sound can obscure his more extreme guitar statements; fusion drum monster Kirk Covington somewhat disparagingly called Robben’s style of music ‘happy blues’ in a recent interview with Drumhead magazine (admittedly after a failed audition for Robben’s band!).

miles robben ford

Robben cut his teeth with the likes of George Harrison, Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Witherspoon, but started off the 1980s playing beautifully at the Montreux Jazz Festival with David Sanborn, Randy Crawford, Al Jarreau et al, contributing three of my favourite ever guitar solos to the Casino Lights live document of that gig.

Then, in 1986, the dream sideman gig materialised: he replaced Mike Stern in Miles Davis‘s band, gaining a new confidence in his abilities and a renewed love for the blues. Apparently Miles believed he’d found his perfect guitar player. But Robben didn’t stay long – he left Miles to make his second solo album Talk To Your Daughter for Warner Bros in 1987.

It’s funny to think of Robben playing guitar with Miles just before this recording because sometimes his music could use a bit of Miles’s obliqueness and use of space. Robben’s voice might not be to everyone’s tastes either, firmly in the Jackson Browne/Michael Franks school, but his guitar solos are always engaging and risk-taking, and a stellar band featuring monster drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Roscoe Beck and Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante makes the music breathe. The album sounds like it was recorded live in the studio too, a big plus especially in the over-produced late-’80s.

The gospel-tinged ‘Revelation’ is worth the price of the album alone, possibly Robben’s finest recorded work to date and the only instrumental here. Robben’s take on ‘Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues’, co-written by Duke Ellington and best-known as a Mose Allison number, is also superb, a feast of jazz chords and tasteful band accompaniment.

Down-and-dirty blues it ain’t, but Talk To Your Daughter definitely brought something fresh to the party. Other modern guitar greats Scott Henderson, Gary Moore, Frank Gambale and Larry Carlton were listening; within a few years, they’d all reacquaint themselves with the blues in a big way too.

David Bowie’s Stonehenge? The Glass Spider Debacle

David-Bowies-glass-spiderI’m generally a big ’80s Bowie apologist but sometimes even I have to say: What the hell was he thinking?

I was a 12-year-old pop fan when Let’s Dance hit, perfectly placed to love it and its usually-maligned follow-up Tonight. I enjoyed almost everything Bowie did in ’85 and ’86 too, from ‘Dancing In The Street‘ and ‘This Is Not America‘ to ‘Absolute Beginners‘ and ‘When The Wind Blows‘.

But 1987 is another story altogether. Even as a 15-year-old, right from the start I sniffed something dodgy about Never Let Me Down and its accompanying Glass Spider tour. I’ve found a couple of things to love about the former in the years since (especially the great Lennonesque title track) but can’t find anything good about the latter. And the entire debacle is right there in all its glory on YouTube, of course…

Bowie at the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour London press conference, 20th March 1987

Bowie at the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour London press conference, 20th March 1987

The show was certainly ahead of its time with its tightly-choreographed, narrative vignettes – just look at Prince’s Lovesexy and Madonna’s Blond Ambition tours for evidence of its influence. If you’re a big Bowie fan, the opening moments are amusing if a bit tasteless – guitarist Carlos Alomar attempts some ill-advised, sub-Van Halen guitar pyrotechnics while an offstage David repeatedly screams ‘Shut up!’ in ‘It’s No Game’ style.

There then follows an outrageous opening medley featuring a bizarre, lip-synched version of ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ followed by a hilariously hammy spoken word section by Bowie which wants to be a nod to ‘Future Legend‘ but actually more closely resembles Nigel Tufnel in Stonehenge mode. Is he taking the piss? Usually this question doesn’t cross your mind with Bowie, no matter how much he ‘tests’ his audience, but it does here.

Then there’s a brutal depiction of gang warfare juxtaposed with Bowie’s cheesy, reassuring grin, a typically unsettling mixture of menace and child-like innocence. But he seems generally uncomfortable throughout the show. His attempts at audience interaction are always awkward and nothing links the songs; almost all end in blackout before another lumbers into view.

david-bowieThe Glass Spider tour also features surely the most dated-sounding band in Bowie’s history, with huge, triggered drums, rambling synth solos, garish, unpleasant DX7 factory sounds and lots of cod-raunchy guitar from Alomar and Peter Frampton. This is a far too ‘muso’ bunch of musicians for Bowie. The fanfare of synth horns at the end of ‘Fame’ is just unforgivable.

‘Heroes’ is stripped of all romance and majesty and becomes a jaunty throwaway. ‘Sons of the Silent Age’ coasts in on a nicely Middle Eastern-ish vibe, a huge relief from the bombast, but is nearly ruined by Frampton’s nasal lead vocals. None of these versions come close to being definitive. Also the fact that Bowie only plays four tracks from the Never Let Me Down album just a few months after its release pretty much goes to show what he thinks of it.

Bowie famously burnt the huge stage set in a field at the end of the tour. He must have wished he’d never set eyes on it. But within a year, he’d hooked up with avant-metal guitarist Reeves Gabrels, started work with influential dance troupe La La La Human Steps and embarked on some very interesting new musical adventures. Watch this space for more (and judge Glass Spider for yourself below…).

Dues Paid: Marcus Miller’s Suddenly

marcus millerWarner Bros, released June 1983

Bought: HMV Richmond 1989?

7/10

I first became aware of Marcus when I saw him playing bass with Miles Davis at the trumpeter’s Hammersmith Odeon ‘comeback’ gig in ’82.

Unfortunately I don’t remember much about Marcus’s playing or the gig (I was 10), but he quickly became one of my bass heroes a few years later when I was bowled over by his contribution to Miles’ Star People album.

Marcus’s name came up again recently when I was talking to someone about great one-man-band albums. In the soul/funk/R’n’B world, obviously there’s Stevie, Prince, Lewis Taylor and Sly. Marcus’s 1983 debut Suddenly almost puts him up there with that esteemed company too, though in the final analysis it suffers from a lack of top-quality material.

Marcus has put it on record that he was first inspired to play music by Michael Jackson and Stevie, and Suddenly was his first attempt to enter their world of quality soul/funk/R’n’B songwriting. He’d certainly paid his dues for Warner Bros Records by 1983, producing, composing and/or playing bass with David Sanborn, Donald Fagen, Joe Sample, Roberta Flack, Grover Washington Jr. and Claus Ogerman, so a Warners solo debut was always on the cards.

Marcus-Miller

You can hear elements of ZAPP, Gap Band, The Time and Cameo on Suddenly, and if Marcus doesn’t quite establish himself as a genuine ’80s funk contender, there are a myriad of great grooves and musical touches to enjoy. He pretty much plays all instruments, getting in selected guests (drummers Harvey Mason and Yogi Horton, Vandross, Sanborn, Mike Mainieri) to add spice here and there. Marcus is not a great singer, his voice rather light and uncertain, but his bass and keyboard playing, songwriting and arranging really save the day.

Lovin’ You‘ is uplifting pop/funk with a classic bassline, while ‘Just What I Needed’ features some great Richard Tee-like, gospel-tinged piano from Marcus. And his piccolo bass solo on ‘Much Too Much’ had me checking the sleevenotes in vain for the presence of late great guitarist Eric Gale. ‘Just For You‘ was previously recorded by David Sanborn on the classic Voyeur album, but here it gets a nice new vocal treatment with some beautiful sax from Sanborn.

It’s telling though that the closing instrumental ‘Could It Be You’ (unfortunately only in mono below…) is by far the most successful track, featuring Miller’s fabulous fretless bass solo. It was later covered excellently by Dizzy Gillespie on his 1984 Closer To The Source album.

Let me know what you think.